The ADL’s Antisemitism Findings, Explained

The organization’s annual audit found a worrisome surge in incidents—but experts say some of its numbers lack context.

Mari Cohen
April 4, 2023

Police officers stand watch outside the United Synagogue of Hoboken, New Jersey, on November 3rd, after the FBI received word of a security threat.

AP Photo/Ryan Kryska

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On March 23rd, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) released its annual antisemitism audit, a tally of every anti-Jewish incident the group recorded and verified in 2022. The news was bleak: For the second year in a row, the ADL compiled a record-breaking number of incidents—individual events of antisemitic violence, harassment, or vandalism—for a total of 3,697 entries, a 36% percent increase from 2021. The numbers showed significant increases in antisemitic assaults, white supremacist propaganda, and bomb threats on synagogues, as well as upticks in vandalism and verbal harassment. “We’re deeply disturbed by this dramatic and completely unacceptable surge in antisemitic incidents,” ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt said in a press release accompanying the audit. Outlets across the country—from The New York Times to local TV stations—echoed the sentiment, reporting a “dramatic rise” and an “all-time high.”

Reporting on this audit presents a unique challenge. On the one hand, as I’ve written previously, there are reasons to be skeptical of the ADL’s methodology. Counting antisemitic incidents—and hate crimes in general—is an inexact science, which makes it hard to compare numbers over multiple years. Furthermore, the ADL has frequently included incidents of anti-Zionist political expression in its antisemitism tally, and has recently announced an intent to zealously oppose anti-Zionist politics, making it difficult to trust the organization’s judgment and motives as it relates to its reports. Still, the audit includes a litany of concerning antisemitic incidents that merit serious attention—in at least two cases, for example, perpetrators punched or threw rocks at Jewish people in synagogue parking lots. For help in understanding the nuances of the ADL’s numbers, I spoke to several trusted sources and put together this explainer about what readers can take from the audit.

How does the ADL compile its audit? Is its methodology reliable?

The majority of the incidents in the ADL audit were reported directly to the organization by victims; the ADL also pulls incidents from news stories and receives reports from law enforcement sources and Jewish communal groups. The ADL says its staff verifies each incident before including it in the audit, weeding out duplicates and “trolling and spam.” Incidents are included when “circumstances indicate anti-Jewish animus on the part of the perpetrator” or “a reasonable person could plausibly conclude they were being victimized due to their Jewish identity.” The ADL does not include incidents that happen in private or involve discrimination in the workplace, unless the discrimination is “accompanied by verbal harassment.”

Even with rigorous verification methods, however, “hate” incidents against minority groups are notoriously hard to track. The FBI hate crime statistics, for example, which are tallied from local law enforcement reports, are known for being unreliable, because many victims don’t come forward, and many police agencies don’t participate in the FBI’s data collection. Matthew Boxer, a sociologist at Brandeis University who conducts demographic studies for Jewish communities around the country and currently holds an ADL research fellowship, has long felt that the ADL’s numbers are likely failing to capture most of the antisemitic incidents that actually occur in the United States, since his surveys often suggest higher levels of antisemitism than the annual audits turn up. He believes this is because many victims aren’t reporting what happens to them, especially in small Jewish communities where Jewish people feel less comfortable communicating with law enforcement. (The ADL does acknowledge in the report that the audit is not “an effort to catalog every expression of antisemitism,” and argues in the accompanying press release that “a full understanding” of the problem would require polling and other forms of research.)

The challenges inherent in data collection make it especially difficult to identify trends over time, because any improvement in collection methods will necessarily lead to higher numbers. But tracking trends seems to be a central aim of the ADL report: For each category of incidents, it lists a percentage change from the previous year. I asked Boxer if the ADL’s numbers can still serve this purpose, even if they provide a sample rather than a complete picture. He warned that trying to compare numbers this way is complicated. “Does more recorded incidents inherently mean that there’s more antisemitism? My answer to that is no,” he said. “It could be that the ADL did a better job of recording, or that more people felt comfortable reporting incidents [as compared to] last year.” Changes in the ADL’s data collection practices could also be affecting the numbers: “The ADL is doing a better job now than they did in the past of working with other groups to try to record as many incidents as possible. But when you bring in other partners to help you record incidents, you’re going to have more incidents.” Finally, while the ADL compares its numbers to its entire history of recording incidents and compiling annual audits—which it has been doing since 1979—Boxer noted that the Jewish population has increased significantly during that time, as has the US population as a whole, meaning that it would likely be more accurate to do a per capita comparison.

Last year, in its 2021 audit, the ADL announced that it had partnered for the first time with certain Jewish groups—including Hillel International, the Union of Reform Judaism, and several organizations focused on Jewish communal security—in order to receive antisemitic incident reports. But the organization still touted its topline finding of a 34% increase in incidents from the previous year, including the caveat that the increase resulted in part from a change in collection practices at the very bottom of the press release. This year, however, the ADL says it did not add new data streams. “Our announcement of the new partnerships with Jewish institutions in 2021 is an example of our effort to be transparent about changes to our data sources, and this year there were no significant changes to those partnerships nor to the proportion of incidents included in the Audit as a result of reports from partnerships,” an ADL spokesperson told me. Aryeh Tuchman, a senior associate director at ADL’s Center on Extremism, acknowledged in an interview with JTA that the addition of new sources could be contributing to the rising numbers. But, he said, he was confident that the ADL was still measuring an increase: “We’re not getting a huge number of incidents as a result of new data sources—maybe some, but especially with the most serious incidents, there are only a limited number of incidents of synagogues that are vandalized every year.”

Even if Boxer doesn’t find the audit numbers persuasive on their own, he agrees there likely has been an increase in incidents. “From all the studies I’ve done and all the research I’ve read, I think it’s likely that the true number of incidents has risen in the last several years,” he said. “I am not so sure that it’s because there are more antisemites than there used to be—I think a lot of it is just simply that the antisemites who have always been there are bolder now than they were eight years ago.”

What did the ADL find, and what can it tell us about the nature of American antisemitism?

The vast majority of the incidents tracked in the ADL’s audit consisted of verbal or written harassment, with 2,298 such individual entries constituting 62% of all incidents—a 29% increase from last year’s report. (Examples included someone shouting antisemitic slurs at their neighbor or leaving an antisemitic review for a Jewish business.) A total of 1,288 incidents, or 35%, were classified as vandalism, a 51% increase from 2021, and 111 incidents, or 3%, were categorized as assault, a 26% increase. (More than half of the assaults targeted Orthodox Jews, and 52 took place in Brooklyn. For example, in December 2022, an individual shoved a Jewish man on a subway car, punched him in the face, and called him a “dirty Jew.”) The ADL also reported a 102% increase in dissemination of white supremacist propaganda, amounting to 852 incidents in which it was distributed, and a major jump in bomb threats to Jewish institutions, from 8 last year up to 91 this year. It’s the most bomb threats the ADL has recorded since 2017, when more than 100 Jewish institutions were targeted in a spree of threats, almost all of which turned out to come from one American Israeli man who claimed his actions were the result of mental illness. This year, the ADL says it has not determined if the new threats are coming from one or multiple perpetrators. “Law enforcement is still investigating these bomb threats, so it’s possible we will learn more,” said the ADL spokesperson.

Ben Lorber, who tracks white nationalism and antisemitism as a senior research analyst for Political Research Associates, lamented that the audit tends to present vastly different types of incidents alongside one another as equal data points. “The audit had the Colleyville, Texas, hostage crisis alongside a middle school kid saying ‘Someone bullied me,’” he said. “It removes a lot of nuance and texture.” Boxer echoed the criticism: “A small piece of graffiti that most people aren’t going to notice is a minor thing. But Tucker Carlson talking about Jewish conspiracies to control the world on Fox—that’s affecting millions of people, and it’s encouraging antisemitism. So, each might be counted as one incident in theory, but they’re not the same.”

Lorber was particularly critical of the report’s presentation of the dissemination of white supremacist propaganda. Though he agrees that such distribution has increased, he argued that the hate groups’ focus on disseminating antisemitic flyers, while disturbing, might actually be a sign of weakness. “In many ways, these groups are doing this stuff because they don’t have the numbers to do anything else,” said Lorber. Though he said white nationalist conspiracy theories remain popular, including on major platforms like Fox News, groups have had trouble maintaining their grassroots strength, in part because of the lawsuits and doxxing that many white nationalists faced after the infamous 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. “A lot of groups have moved to activities like putting up a sticker or a flier and taking a selfie, because they’re hoping that it shocks the public and gets media attention that they can use to project an outsized sense of their own impact and relevance,” Lorber said, noting that he would’ve liked to see this context included in the audit.

As for why the number of incidents could, in fact, be growing, Kenneth Stern, an attorney who directs the Bard Center for the Study of Hate, said that he would trace rising antisemitism to a general societal “push toward conspiratorial thinking,” even if it doesn’t always overtly target Jews. “Leaders push the idea that to protect whoever the ‘us’ is from the ‘them,’ we have to vilify ‘them’ and see ‘them’ as a danger. ‘Them’ could be Muslims, immigrants, LGBTQ folks, the people teaching about racism in school. That inevitably invites conspiratorial thinking, and when you invite conspiratorial thinking that inevitably leads to an environment where antisemitism can increase,” he said. The audit notes that the public embrace of antisemitic conspiracies spread by figures like Ye, the rapper formerly known as Kanye West, may have influenced antisemitism on the ground: It found that 59 incidents, comprising 44 harassment cases, 13 instances of vandalism, and two assaults, specifically referenced Ye. Lorber said, however, that the audit should also have included references to other figures, including right-wing public officials, who have fomented antisemitism: “They didn’t really mention the role of larger political actors in driving antisemitism,” he said. “They didn’t talk about the fact that George Soros conspiracies were more extreme than ever on Fox News. The ADL didn’t include that context.”

How many of the reported incidents have to do with anti-Zionism?

The ADL has long incorporated Israel advocacy into its work, opposing Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaigns and promoting US–Israel cooperation. Last year, in a controversial speech, Greenblatt took the organization’s long-time commitment to Zionism a step further, announcing that the ADL would view anti-Zionist leftist organizations like Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) as the “photo inverse” of the white supremacist right. He also declared unequivocally that “anti-Zionism is antisemitism.”

Yet the audit lists just 241 incidents related to Israel or Zionism—roughly 6.5% of the total. Of those, nearly a fifth—46 incidents—were attributed not to leftist anti-Zionist groups like SJP or JVP, but to white supremacist groups that use anti-Zionism as part of their messaging. For example, in Dallas in March 2022, the white supremacist group “Folkish Resistance Movement” distributed propaganda featuring a Star of David that read “Resist Zionism.” “Much of the radical white nationalist right is highly anti-Zionist. That anti-Zionism is really of a piece with their antisemitism—they view Israel as the nerve center of a global Jewish power,” said Lorber. “The kind of antisemitism that people like Jonathan Greenblatt insist is on the anti-Zionist left is actually very much on the radical right.”

As for the 195 anti-Zionist incidents in the audit that were not linked to white supremacists, the ADL says it doesn’t include all anti-Israel activity, but selects incidents for the audit only when anti-Zionist expression targets Jewish individuals or institutions. (Notably, the audit says that anti-Zionism is “often” antisemitic, diverging slightly from Greenblatt’s contention that anti-Zionism is synonymous with antisemitism.) In addition, “public statements of opposition to Zionism, which are often antisemitic, are included in the audit when it can be determined that they had a negative impact on one or more Jewish individuals or identifiable, localized groups of Jews,” the audit’s methodology section says. Some of the incidents that the audit counts appear to combine anti-Israel sentiment with broader anti-Jewish animus, such as a case in which an Israeli flag was vandalized with swastikas in Los Angeles in February 2022. But in other incidents, only Zionist politics were targeted. The audit’s full data includes an event in which Drexel University’s SJP staged a banner drop from a highway overpass with the message “Zionism = Racism.” In another incident, an Israeli flag was torn down from its hanging place in a sukkah at the University of Texas. The ADL’s Tuchman told The Forward that Jewish religious spaces like synagogues and cultural institutions like Hillels should be “off-limits” to anti-Israel protests, “even if a synagogue itself is engaging in pro-Israel messaging.” But drawing those distinctions can get complicated: “One might protest outside of the Hillel when it is hosting a pro-Israel speaker or is actively engaged as one of the leading players in fighting BDS on campus,” said Lorber. “I think it’s tricky to say that’s a straightforward case of antisemitism.”

Even with these inclusive counting practices, the ADL found only 219 incidents on college campuses, often described by mainstream Jewish organizations as hotbeds of anti-Israel activity. This represented a 41% increase from the previous year, but just 6% of the total count. Of that 219, 19% involved references to Israel or Zionism. “The discrepancy between these reported figures and the prevailing rhetoric of how dangerous it is to be a Jew on college campuses these days is shocking,” said Boxer.

Overall, the audit attributes 70 incidents to the “hostile anti-Zionist activist groups” it has pledged to target, including SJP affiliates. Fifty-three of those, however, came from one group, Witness for Peace, a small, antisemitic, Holocaust-denying group that has for many years protested weekly outside Saturday services at a synagogue in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The group uses anti-Israel and anti-Zionist messaging but has no connection to the broader Palestine solidarity movement. The ADL logged each of their protests separately in the audit.

The ADL said that the relatively small number of anti-Zionist incidents in the audit would not change its approach to antisemitism. “That right-wing white supremacists spew the same anti-Zionism as the radical left anti-Zionists shows how important it is to fight this fight—regardless of political ideology,” the ADL spokesperson said. But Lara Friedman, president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace (FMEP), said she was struck that the report devoted more space to explaining how anti-Zionist groups operate than to analyzing white supremacist activity, despite the comparatively small number of incidents related to anti-Zionism. “Even if you accept the ADL’s conflation of anti-Zionism and antisemitism, their own numbers demonstrate that [leftist anti-Zionism] is not the largest problem. The fact that they give more space to this than to white supremacy or actual assaults on Jews really does disclose the political agenda that is underlining the ADL’s approach on this issue,” she said. Radhika Sainath, a senior staff attorney at Palestine Legal, which defends the civil liberties of Palestine solidarity protestors, argued that it’s harmful for the ADL to include anti-Zionist incidents in its audit. “I think it’s very problematic to say that Palestinians or advocacy for Palestinian rights needs to be absent for Jewish Americans to be safe,” she said. “Accusations like this fuel anti-Palestinian racism and censorship.”

What policies does the ADL recommend based on the audit?

The audit concludes with a list of the ADL’s policy recommendations to fight antisemitism. These include encouraging political leaders to speak up and condemn antisemitism, supporting hate crime laws (which are controversial among progressives), and advocating for security funding for Jewish institutions. The ADL recommends that communities adopt the embattled International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) “working definition” of antisemitism “as a legally nonbinding education tool.” It also calls for the US Department of Education to fully enact President Trump’s executive order instructing federal departments to use IHRA as a guideline for Title VI civil rights complaints about antisemitism. Critics say that the IHRA definition can stifle legitimate forms of anti-Zionist expression; its examples of antisemitism include “claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor” and “applying double standards” to Israel. “IHRA would embroil universities and human resources departments in a morass of anti-Palestinian complaints,” said Sainath. “Its adoption means that students who are not Palestinian can criticize their governments, but if Palestinian students criticize the government that mistreats them, they have to criticize a number of other governments as well or they will be in violation of IHRA. If they say the military occupation against Palestinians is racist, under the IHRA definition they could be investigated.”

Stern, the Bard Center for the Study of Hate director, was the original lead drafter of the IHRA definition when he worked at the American Jewish Committee in the early aughts, but has since criticized the limitations its usage can impose on speech. “I think it’s comforting to people to think, ‘IHRA is a simple tool and it’ll address the problem.’ It won’t,” he said. “The problem with IHRA is that it divides the fight against antisemitism based on what you think about Israel.”

Some of the ADL’s policy recommendations reference Israel advocacy explicitly. The audit calls on its readers to “mobilize” against the BDS movement, and also recommends support for the Abraham Accords, a series of peace deals between Israel and Arab states, in order to “promote tolerance and fight antisemitism in the region.” Many progressives have criticized the accords for failing to hold Israel accountable for the occupation. “This has become red meat for the Jewish community to say, ‘If you don’t support normalization of Israel’s relationships with the Arab world, that proves you’re anti-peace and antisemitic,” Friedman of FMEP said. “If you won’t marginalize or erase Palestinians from the public narrative, then that’s antisemitism.”

One policy prescription that the ADL doesn’t include on its list is for Jews to join coalitions with other marginalized groups. But Lorber, Stern, and Boxer all stressed that forming such coalitions is an essential step in the fight against antisemitism, especially given that many antisemitic white supremacists also target other people with marginalized identities. “Groups who are out there putting up flyers about Jews are also taking to the streets to attack drag queen story hours and Pride events,” said Lorber. “Whenever anyone talks about rising antisemitism, it’s important to remember that these groups are also attacking queer folks and communities of color. And we need a strategy to fight all these kinds of oppression together.”

Mari Cohen is associate editor at Jewish Currents.